Two very interesting things happened in Britain over the last two weeks. What makes them more interesting is that they are wholly contradictory.
Abroad, Britain's foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, put his nation's name to the P5+1 agreement with Iran, lifting sanctions against the Islamic Republic, unfreezing its assets, lifting arms controls on the regime and much, much more, all in exchange for having potential oversight -- with permission requested weeks in advance of any inspection -- of the country's nuclear sites. Britain's signature on this deal appears to have been an accepted and acceptable outcome with no significant opposition from any senior political figure of either main political party, and very little objection in the national press.
A few days later, Britain's Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave his best speech to date on the threat of Islamic extremism at home and abroad. In that speech, the Prime Minister defined the challenge that Islamic extremism poses to Britain's way of life and cohesion as a society. He outlined the problem better than perhaps any other Western leader to date:
"What we are fighting, in Islamist extremism, is an ideology. It is an extreme doctrine. And like any extreme doctrine, it is subversive. At its furthest end, it seeks to destroy nation-states to invent its own barbaric realm. And it often backs violence to achieve this aim... mostly violence against fellow Muslims -- who don't subscribe to its sick worldview. But you don't have to support violence to subscribe to certain intolerant ideas which create a climate in which extremists can flourish. Ideas which are hostile to basic liberal values such as democracy, freedom and sexual equality. Ideas which actively promote discrimination, sectarianism and segregation."
So how does the Prime Minster's domestic speech on extremism fit with the foreign policy goals currently being pursued by the British government? The most straightforward answer is: They don't. Take that lowest rung of what David Cameron rightly sees as an ideological ladder. That is, the ideas which do not pertain to the destruction of whole nation-states but nonetheless demonstrate an extremist mind-set.
In a recent interview, the UK's Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, was asked for an example of what might constitute warning signs of radicalization in a young person. Her answer was that being "extremely intolerant of homosexuality" might be just such a warning sign. Asked whether she thought that a pupil who thought homosexuality was "evil" should be reported to the police, the Education Secretary said that it would "depend very much on the context of the discussion."
By these lights, the Islamic Republic of Iran would most certainly have to be said to display signs of extremism. Indeed, given the circumstances, a referral to the police might be the only option. The Iranian regime does not simply think that homosexuality is "evil," it acts on this sentiment by hanging homosexual people from cranes in public squares. In the last year and a half alone, the regime has hanged more than a thousand people found "guilty" of this "crime," among similar offenses. Iran has also jailed others for the "crime" of being a Christian pastor, a former American marine, or a journalist for the Washington Post.
Another of Cameron's warning signs, a hostility to "sexual equality" would also appear to be among the regime's failings. As no less a figure than America's Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, said earlier this year, when Iran was attempting to join the UN's gender equality body, "In Iran, women are legally barred from holding some government positions, there are no laws against domestic violence, and adultery is punishable by stoning." This is the most diplomatic summary of Iran's subjection of women, but as Power said, these matters, among others, make Iran wholly inappropriate for membership in any gender equality body. In the eyes of the British government, they would also make the Iranian government's attitudes extremist.
Of course, the same Iranian government would fail any British inspectorate's tests in relation to other types of "discrimination, sectarianism and segregation," as David Cameron says. The Iranian government's treatment, for instance, of Iranian citizens who do not adhere to their own particular interpretation of Islam could hardly be said to be liberal. Not only are people of the Baha'i faith horribly and consistently persecuted (to select only one group), but in Iran, apostasy and blasphemy laws remain on the books, which mean that anybody convicted of believing anything other than the beliefs of the Ayatollahs can be hanged in public from cranes -- and they are.
But these are all among the lowest rungs of the extremist ladder. In Prime Minister Cameron's perfectly accurate definition of "the furthest end" of extremism, it consists of "seek[ing] to destroy nation-states to invent its own barbaric realm." For an example of which one need go no further than a speech given by another world leader, only three days before David Cameron's speech.
Last Friday, just before Cameron's speech, and only days after the signatories in Vienna were rejoicing over their deal, a senior Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kermani, was selected by the country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, to deliver Friday prayers in Tehran. He did so -- at this state-run occasion -- while standing on a podium festooned with the words, "We Will Trample Upon America." The words "We defeat the United States" could also be seen in images from the rally.
Left: Senior Iranian cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kermani, speaking on July 17 in Tehran, behind a banner reading "We Will Trample Upon America" and "We defeat the United States." Right: Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, proclaims "Death to America" on March 2.
Meanwhile, only four days after the signing of the Vienna agreement, the Supreme Leader of Iran himself appeared on Iranian state television, praised the "magnificent Iranian people" for calling for the destruction of Israel and America, and said that he hoped that Allah would answer their prayers. Ayatollah Khamenei was referring to the previous week's official day of particular anti-Israel activity called "Al-Quds Day". Khamenei said in his speech, "You heard the chants of 'Death to Israel', 'Death to the US.' You could hear it... So we ask Almighty God to accept these prayers by the people of Iran." His speech was punctuated by cries of 'Death to America' and 'Death to Israel'.
Everybody who knows anything about foreign policy understands its complexities. Perhaps it is not surprising that behaviour that would get you designated an "extremist", "subversive" and even "terrorist" at home might have to be viewed differently abroad. After all, the regime in Saudi Arabia -- an ally of the UK and US -- could hardly be said to be the world's foremost defender of human rights. So perhaps the double standard is understandable. Perhaps behaviour that is extreme at home must be tolerated abroad. But the question really is not why the UK government is willing to maintain a double standard. The real question is why, when it comes to the most extreme, anti-Western nation-destroyer of them all -- a country committed to the annihilation a UN member state -- Her Majesty's government would not only permit it to have any nuclear project, but would trust the word of a regime with stated genocidal intent when it says that it is not pursuing genocidal weaponry?